As Sparklers Turn to Ash
Arriving at a hardware store, they bought a two-pack set of cheap fireworks, a plastic bucket, a stick lighter, and some candles.
They drove off once more, and searched for an empty area along the river where they stopped the car.
When he opened the door and got out, he could hear the chirping of pine crickets.
Each taking their share of the fireworks and supplies, they headed down the embankment and walked alongside each other until they reached the gravel banks of the river.
Several fireflies flew about over the water’s surface, leaving behind trails of light.
They both let out cries of wonder at the sight.
He could see the lights of only a few houses in the vicinity.
He headed towards the edge of the river, urged by Honoka to walk carefully in the dark, and drew up a bucket of water.
She squealed at the chill of the flowing stream.
A chorus of bugs screeched out from a nearby tuft of grass, and next to them, the river murmured along.
The sky was perfectly clear tonight as well, the whole thing full of stars.
Turning his gaze up to the sky, he realized that this was another unblinking starry sky.
Setting a candle on top of a flat rock, he lit it.
The lighter was cheap, but it did the trick.
Opening up one of the sets of fireworks, they started by lighting up the inoffensive handheld fireworks.
While the fireworks performed their unique chorus of sizzles and pops, the multi-colored sparks scattered about.
They giddily fooled around with the sparklers, drawing out curlicues or even lighting two at once.
They propped up one sparkler between a pair of rocks and set it off.
They enjoyed themselves just like schoolkids getting into mischief.
When the handheld fireworks died out, they lit up a cylindrical fountain firework.
The sparks didn’t burst up as high as they imagined, and burned out in an instant.
They looked at each other and broke out into laughter.
The pillar of smoke that rose up endlessly finally blanketed the surroundings of the riverbed.
When the last of the larger fireworks ran out, the last ones left were the plain sparklers.
The fully expanded ball of sparks at the end of the sparkler dimly illuminated Honoka’s profile.
“Wanna bet whose sparkler will last the longest”
He agreed to her plan, and the two of them lit their sparklers at the same time.
The balls of sparks gradually expanded out, shooting out vague threads of light.
All of those gloomy feelings he had been burdened with, the disappointment and fear.
It was as if those and all the rest of his negative emotions had been filled to bursting inside that ball of sparks, Osakabe thought.
In the end, his sparkler was the one to fall to the ground first.
The sparkler lost its radiance in an instant and crumbled to ash, fleeting like a life burning out.
Honoka cheered, “I win!” but he couldn’t manage a smile.
He had a sense that it was only natural for his sparkler to fall apart, unable to withstand its own weight.
“What’s wrong…” Honoka asked, suddenly concerned for the dejected look on his face.
His tears were reflected in her eyes.
“Do you promise not to laugh To tell the truth, I couldn’t let go even after I cut off contact with Minako.
I tried several times to write a letter.”
The wounds in Osakabe’s heart had cut deeper than even he had imagined.
One reason was of course that Minako had a husband and a family.
But even more than that, it was his own feelings towards her that had been reawakened by the failed attempt at a reunion.
He had maybe been a little optimistic to think a reunion would somehow convey to each other wordlessly the loneliness of those bygone days.
There was nothing to be done about the ache in his chest.
All of it was overwhelming him—not just his own shameful hubris, but also how easily wounded he could be by this heartbreak that had taken on such a distinct shape.
And so trying to gather his thoughts, Osakabe explained himself to Honoka.
He explained about his memories of Takasaki Minako, the whole story of the letters they exchanged after he had moved.
Honoka stayed silent, and listened carefully.
How even after he had cut off contact with Minako, he had written several letters.
Of course they were intended for Minako, but as soon as he finished both letters, he had stashed them in his desk drawer without ever mailing them.
In those two letters he told her the truth about who he had become after they ended up at different schools.
Those three years of high school where in the end he could never fit in.
The photography club he continued attending only out of habit.
Puzzling and tenuous human relationships, like the friends he had lied about making in his letters—who, upon reflection, may have actually been his friends.
How he had concocted a mask of lies to conceal the endless days where he struggled to find any hope.
A soliloquy, going on and on about the truth of it all.
And yet, even in those days, how he did find it—that slight sense of hope.
The fun things.
The sad things.
The painful things.
He put it all into those two letters, finally spitting out the entire truth of what he had been hiding.
Suppose those two letters had been mailed and delivered to her.
Suppose she had opened the envelope and read the contents of those letters.
She would have despaired to see how he had changed so much, to see his true self.
“You’ve been through a lot.”
In the calm after Osakabe finished his story, Honoka spoke in a careful tone.
It was a succinct comment, but at the same time her words tenderly accepted him without criticism.
“You’re trying to be nice.”
“About time you realized,” she said sarcastically.
“I was always thinking of you, Osakabe-san.”
He couldn’t deny it.
Countless occasions sprang to mind.
“I finally think I’m ready to open this letter,” he said.
Osakabe pulled out the brown envelope from his chest pocket.
The final letter from Takasaki Minako, left unopened.
Honoka circled behind Osakabe’s crouching figure and leaned against his back to embrace him from behind.
The softness and warmth from the touch of her body surprised him, but he let her do as she pleased.
He opened the envelope, and pulled out the letter inside.
Dear Osakabe Kengo,
Every day with no word from you, I grow uneasy.
Did you move
Are you sick, or in the hospital
Or rather, was my confession a burden Did it bother you that I said “I loved you”
If so, then I apologize.
However, it’s true that I love you, Kengo-kun.
I sent that letter because I can no longer lie about my feelings.
But I’m truly sorry.
While I’m asking for forgiveness, let me apologize for one more thing.
I wrote that things weren’t going very well for me.
That was a lie.
Everything is absolutely awful.
At this high school, I’ve been bullied.
Why do these girls hate me It isn’t clear.
I thought it might be because I’m untalkative and don’t put up a fight, maybe because I’m neither especially strong or weak—I’m someone who’s awkwardly stuck in between.
Because it’s not the first time I’ve been bullied, I know the trick to enduring.
But that trick, to not react even when they strike me, may have annoyed them even more.
They grab me by the neck and drag me into the equipment room in the gym.
After they all take turns punching and kicking me, they hold my mouth open and pour a bucket of dirty water over me.
I don’t know where they got the water, but I can guess.
That filthy water is brought out only after cleaning time, after the other students finish cleaning the classrooms and hallways.1
I’ve stopped counting the number of times my indoor shoes were hidden.2
If I can find one of the pairs that was hidden before, then I’ll wear those.
But once those run out, I have to buy new ones.
I’m constantly bringing new indoor shoes to school hidden inside my bag.
It’s agonizing to pass these girls in the halls.
They pick a fight with me whether I meet their gaze or look away.
And sometimes, they push me into the bathroom.
The bullying inside those stalls is the worst.
I’ve been made to drink things more unhygienic than whatever was in those buckets.
But even so—I was able to endure it all.
All because I had your letters to look forward to, time and time again.
This is my final request to you.
If you feel any inkling of friendship at all towards me, this pathetic girl, if you would only talk to me in person, even just one time, I would appreciate it.
Please, will you come see me
I will save up to pay for travel expenses.
However long you need, I will wait for you.
Osakabe sat in shock.
He was not the only one to construct an entirely false self within the letters.
In fact, he now learned that Minako had been in even worse circumstances, and not knowing what to do, had masked herself in even deeper lies.
He had trampled all over that final wish she made without even reading her letter.
For the first time in his twenty-five years, he realized how hopeless of a liar, a coward, a cold-hearted person he had been.
From her point of view, he had ignored the confession that she had summoned all of her courage to write, and then her plea to meet once more.
To make matters worse, how must she have felt to not even receive a response Even taking into account that he had not known the truth of it, it was an unforgivable, cowardly act.
His heart was about to be crushed under his guilty conscience.
How could he ever atone for this It was arrogant to even consider it.
He couldn’t atone.
His crime was that serious, and far too much time had passed.
Yet it seemed Minako had already recovered from that damage and found a happy life.
As for him, the one who had stomped all over her affections…
Osakabe, unable to bear it any longer, fell to his hands and knees on the gravel and sobbed.
He bawled his eyes out and kept crying.
As he sank to the ground, Honoka lowered her knees to meet him.
How stupid, he thought.
He had tried to live his life without getting involved with anyone, without loving anyone too deeply, all so that he would never feel this way.
And now he was burdened with this grief, all because he let his guard down to feel one moment of sentimentality and opened that letter.
If only he had never learned the truth, he could have preserved his beautiful memories deep inside his heart.
“Cry it all out,” Honoka said, wiping away the tears from his eyes with her fingers.
“When it’s unbearable, don’t hold back.
Scream and cry.
There’s nothing else to be ashamed of, right”
“I’m sorry for dragging you into this.
I’m so pathetic.
What a loser.”
The girl’s fingertips gently caressed his swollen eyelids. Such warm hands, he thought.
The faint warmth from her fingertips seemed to permeate his aching heart.
“You’re not pathetic, and you’re not a loser.
Osakabe-san, you regret your poor treatment of Minako, and you cry for her.
And she overcame her sorrows, and found happiness.
Isn’t that wonderful You can still look back on your wonderful memories together.
The life that came after may cast some shadows, but now everyone is living happily.
Isn’t that enough”
Happily, huh, he laughed derisively at himself.
“Why do you even care about someone like me”
“Why I wonder.
I guess I’m just nosey.
I don’t even really understand myself.”
As she feigned ignorance, her lips grazed the back of his neck.
Softly, so that Osakabe wouldn’t notice.
A touch so light he couldn’t even be sure he felt it.
“I’m right here,” she murmured.
I know the truth of what you carry in your heart, Osakabe-san.
I also know exactly why you always worry.
I know why there is no hope in your eyes.
I want to reach out to help you.
I want to support you.
Even though I must give it my all, because my time in Miyako is already running out…
I’m so useless.
I still can’t find the courage…
He neatly folded Takasaki Minako’s letter into a paper airplane and sent it flying towards the opposite shore of the river, which glimmered in the streetlights.
The airplane hung in the air for a long moment, then finally fell into the water.
It was carried off by the stream.
“Is that okay” Honoka asked from beside him.
“I don’t care.” Osakabe answered.
“It’s just as you said.
After reflecting on the mistakes I made, I still have to move on.
I can’t let myself forget this, but it’s not like I want to reread this and relive all these emotions.
So it’s fine.”
Two fireflies, their paths completely intertwined in their mating dance, flew by in the cold, night wind.
T/N: Sorry for missing last week’s update! Expect two more updates this week to make up for it.
Students are in charge of cleaning the school, often with little direct supervision from teachers.
Buckets of water are typically used to clean rags that are used to clean the floors, chalkboards, and various other surfaces.
Soap is not often used, and the rags are left to dry without any washing in between uses, so it’s definitely not hygienic drinking water…
Students in Japan change into indoor shoes when they arrive at school.
These shoes may be decided by the dress code, typically white sneakers with some color accent to differentiate between grades.
These shoes are kept in shoe lockers at the entrance, which are typically just cubbies assigned to each student.
This makes stealing shoes a common and easy bullying tactic.